On the 1st of November 2018, the UK government moved cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. While this might sound like a small change, this rescheduling actually allowed the medical prescription of cannabis-based products in the UK for the first time in almost half a century. Now, over four years on from this historic day, millions of people in the UK are eligible for legal access to medical cannabis treatment.
Of course, in reality, things aren’t quite as straightforward as that. While it is estimated that around 1.4 million people across the country are self-medicating with cannabis, only around 17,000 patients have gained a prescription for cannabis-based medicines from legal sources. While this may be just a drop in the water when it comes to people who could potentially benefit from medical cannabis treatment, this figure is consistently growing year on year. It is, therefore, extremely important for medical cannabis patients to be fully aware of the rules and regulations concerning their medical cannabis prescription – as well as their rights as patients.
Perhaps one of the most important things medical cannabis patients may have to consider when initiating treatment is how their medical cannabis use might affect their employment. For example, are you allowed to use your medication in the workplace? What should you say to your employer? And what if you are required to drive or operate heavy machinery for a living?
A lot of things can be overwhelming when starting a new medical treatment, but your employment rights should not be one of them. That’s why we’ve put together this quick guide to give you all the information you need about medical cannabis and the workplace.
Medical cannabis in the workplace
If you have been granted a prescription for a cannabis-based medicine in the UK, you may want to discuss this with your employer – particularly if you feel that using your medication while at work would be beneficial. While there is usually no legal obligation for patients in the UK to discuss any medical conditions or medications they are taking with their employer, in some circumstances, this may be required. For example, if the medical condition or medication in question may have safety implications for the patient or other employees.
This is likely to be the case if you operate heavy machinery or drive as part of your job. As cannabis-based medicines can cause a number of side effects, including drowsiness and impaired cognitive function, you should not carry out this kind of work after taking your medication. In these circumstances, it may be necessary to discuss your prescription with your employer so that suitable alternative measures can be put in place.
However, in other cases, using medical cannabis in the workplace can be completely safe – though this should always be done as instructed by a trained medical professional. Nonetheless, prescribers and legislators tend to recommend that patients discuss their medical cannabis prescription with their employer if they feel comfortable doing so. This can allow your employer to implement suitable and appropriate adjustments and carry out safety assessments, if necessary. Furthermore, it removes the risk of the patient being perceived to be in violation of any company policy regarding drug and alcohol use at work.
Preparing for a meeting with your employer
Discussing medical cannabis with others (not just your employer) can be a daunting prospect. Despite being legal for over four years, medical cannabis still carries a lot of stigma, thanks to a long period of prohibition in the UK and most other countries around the world. In fact, a recent survey found that, while the majority of medical cannabis patients felt comfortable discussing their prescriptions with family and friends, a majority experienced perceived stigma from society in general, including government agencies.
Furthermore, a significant portion of the UK population is reportedly still unaware that medical cannabis is now legal in the UK. If your employer is one of these, then having a conversation about your medical cannabis prescription can be nerve-racking. However, there are a few things you can do to prepare for this conversation.
For example, it may be helpful for your employer if you bring to the following documents to your meeting:
- An outline of your medical history
- A copy of your prescription
- A letter from the prescribing clinician (this may include details of how often and how you need to take your medication, information regarding relevant side effects, and suggestions for reasonable adjustments that may be required for you to carry out your work safely)
What if my employer refuses to let me use medical cannabis at work?
Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee that this conversation will go smoothly. So, what if your employer tells you “no”? Well, the good news is, there are statutory safeguards that protect people who take prescribed medications at work – including medical cannabis. You should inform your employer of these safeguards and work with them to establish a suitable solution.
What if I am required to take drug tests?
In some jobs, you may be required to take regular or random drug tests. This is understandably a worry for medical cannabis patients. For some patients, such as those who work as pilots or heavy good vehicle (HGV) drivers, medical cannabis is not often prescribed due to the potential safety implications that could result from impairment. However, there are other professions in which employees may be required to submit drug tests.
If you have not already done so, it is a good idea to inform your employer of your medical cannabis prescription if you may be required to submit a drug test. Even if you do not experience impairment or other side effects from your medication, THC contained within your medication is still likely to cause a failed drug test. In fact, THC can remain in the system and show up on drug tests for weeks after administration.
Gaining a medical cannabis prescription can be a life-changing experience for many patients. But while the hard work (getting a prescription in the first place) may be behind you, there may still be some hurdles to overcome. Being as informed as possible when it comes to your legal rights as a medical cannabis patient can help to make the journey that little bit easier.
If you have a qualifying condition and feel that you may benefit from a medical cannabis prescription, take a look at our guide: How to get a medical cannabis prescription in the UK.